Dagon (2001): Lovecraft and the Fear of Losing Control

    I’m at the point now where I prefer Stephen King to H.P. Lovecraft. With Lovecraft you get a bit of racism, sexism and victimization and nothing that happens has any point, which would make a fun game but not a good story. This film is a shining example of nothing mattering and victimization. This works in the context of a horror film but given all the good Stephen King books I’ve read or films I’ve watched…I like my characters to be empowered, even if they lose they should die fighting and in Lovecraft, that doesn’t happen. This comes out in the adaptations and based off my own bias I have discovered in regards to what I enjoy in a horror film. The one exception I can think of a Lovecraftian horror film that doesn’t fall into this trap fully, is “The Void” which is well worth checking out.

The film was directed by Stuart Gordon and written by Dennis Paoli while being produced by Carlos and Julio Fernandez, Miguel Torrente and Brian Yuzna.

The story involves Paul who is on vacation with his girlfriend Barbara and another couple named Vicki and Howard. When a storm happens Paul and Barbara are forced to go for help at the town of Imboca, but all as not as it appears to be as horror unfolds upon their arrival.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Terror of a Lovecraftian World – Unlike “In the Mouth of Madness” “Dagon” truly captures the terror of what it would be like to have no control and be trapped and isolated. “In the Mouth of Madness” explores the terror of being a character in a story and having no agency, where “Dagon” is having your agency ripped from you. That is one thing that this film does really well and why it works as a horror film.

The Raw Perspective – The film isn’t filmed all that well in regards to the fact that it isn’t stylized and looks raw. This does a good job of contributing to the terror as it gives the film an almost documentary feel, and helps hide the bad CGI making the more practical costumes and effects stand out.

The Town and Setting – The town of Imboca (a translation of Innsmouth like the Lovecraft story of the same name) is terrifying. What would a town be like that was full of people who had been warped by an old one into half-fish people who worship a monster? In this we see that and how they have lost all their humanity and perspective. This adds terror as wherever Paul runs to, he isn’t safe as there are always monsters chasing him and his understanding of what he knows to be true is changed.

The Cons: Paul’s Transformation – We learn that Paul is part fish-person as after Dagon takes Barbara to be his consort he transforms and receives gills. The steps to get here aren’t believable though, it just happens and given how sudden it happens, his human motivations should not change but they do. He should be trying to save Barbara or at least fulfill her last wishes of wanting to die, instead he follows the High Priestess Uxia (his half-sister who wants to be his lover) into the depths where Dagon is.

Dagon’s Motivation – Why does Dagon need a consort? There is no reason for Dagon to take human slaves to have sex with…he is a giant tentacle monster that can warp people without giving birth to them. This I felt was pretty weak and given that Dagon is key to the story we never learn about what motivates it.

The Victimization of the Women – Vicki gets rapes and Barbara is going to be raped by Dagon. This is what happens to the women of the story who aren’t Uxia, whose soul purpose is to victimize women as sacrifices. This is awful and it doesn’t make any sense why an Old One like Dagon would even want this, this is Lovecraft’s warped perspective and honestly a major problem in his writing as this seems to happen to any woman who appears in his stories or stories adapted to film.

The acting isn’t great in this film but I don’t really know if that is a point against the film as it feels raw and real which contributes to the terror aspect of the film, so I can’t really include as a pro or con. This is a film that if you enjoy Lovecraft, you should check out. It captures the worst and best aspects of his writing and the themes within. What I enjoyed most was the terror of the town, which took me back to the town in “Resident Evil 4” where there wasn’t a safe place and you were always on the run. This and the overall tone and foreboding are easily what I enjoyed most, while the characters and events were what had the most to be desired.

Final Score: 7.5 / 10

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In the Mouth of Madness (1994): The Power of the Storyteller

We begin Halloween Horror Week with “In the Mouth of Madness” one of the films in John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors with the “Escape” series, “Halloween” and “The Thing” being some of my favorite films. This film joins those as a favorite though it does not reach “Halloween” or “The Thing” level quality. This is really smart film and it was well written, what really only brings it down are how some of the characters are written and some of the cast performances.

The film was directed by John Carpenter, written by Michael De Luca and produced by Sandy King.

The story involves John Trent (Sam Neill) recounting how he ended up in an insane asylum, as his story begins he is an insurance investigator who is investigating the disappearance of a famous horror author named Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) who has gone missing and whose editors need in order to get his latest book, “In the Mouth of Madness,” released on time.

Spoilers ahead

Pros: The Lovecraft Themes – The main themes that are Lovecraftian that are done really well in this film are people being driven mad from beings from beyond (Sutter Cane’s books are warping reality because of being from beyond) body twisting (the people in Hobb’s End and those who come to Hobb’s end, a character in an insane asylum, people cut off from the world (Hobb’s End) and the pointlessness of man’s fight against the greater universe (John discovers that he is a character in one of Cane’s books so he never had Free Will. These are some of the many Lovecraftian themes in the film and easily what it does best.

What the Storyteller Does to the Characters – As someone who writes fiction as a hobby, authors are cruel to our characters. We create drama for them and have them suffer so that they go through arcs. The sad thing is they are entertainment to us to some degree as stories are entertainment and we may care about our characters but not in the same way we care about real life people. John Trent feels that in full as well as the horror of realizing he is just a character in a story.

The Power of Meta-Narrative – One of the things that works really well in this film is the meta-narrative. You have the narrative of Cane’s past books woven into Hobb’s End as well as “In the Mouth of Madness” weaved through the story as John comes to realize that this film is his story and he is trapped inside of it. These levels of narrative and meta-narrative lend the story power as the different levels of story inform one another and strengthen the themes.

What is Reality? – A major question the film asks is if we are just in a story that someone else is writing. That is John Trent’s arc and from there the question is asked whether his reality really was really warped by Cane or if it’d been warped all along. Is the only reality Sutter Cane’s and John Trent is trapped in a book? Or was reality really warped by being beyond and the world of the film was our world that was transformed? I believe the movie leaves this question open, which strengthens the narrative.

Okay: The Cast – The only great members of the cast is Sam Neill. I believed his terror and he felt fully realized, even though we didn’t necessarily get to know his character as well as we could have. The others are okay but I wouldn’t really consider their performances great. They felt like set pieces that fit within the narrative but not fully realized characters.

The Characters -This was a film with huge ambitions but the writing doesn’t fully realize the characters within. Even John Trent could have been better realized in regards to his motivations and what he was going through. All the characters are guilty of this. They aren’t bad but Cane doesn’t feel threatening, I never felt I was given the chance to care about Linda Styles, Cane’s editor and besides John Trent the rest of the characters feel like parts of a puzzle that work but not unique in and of themselves. Which is a pattern I’ve noticed in the Lovecraftian adaptations I’ve seen thus far.

If you are a fan of Lovecraft, John Carpenter or horror films you should really check this film out. This is a brilliant film and I love how it explores the nature of reality, the power of the storyteller in regards to the characters they create and the use of meta-narrative. It would have been perfect if the characters had been better written and the film had a better cast but for what it is, it is a really good film and one I’d highly recommend. This is a favorite, and I plan to watch it again in the future.

Final Score: 8.6 / 10

Halloween Horror Week

It is once again that time of year for me to do “Horror Week.” The month of October has been busy so I finally got around to it this week so it won’t be a month of horror like what I’ve done on the blog in the past. This month the two themes I’m exploring are films inspired by Stephen King books and Lovecraftian inspired films.

On the Stephen King side I’ll be reviewing the newest “IT,” “1922” and “The Langoliers” and on the Lovecraft inspired side I’ll be reviewing “In the Mouth of Madness” and “Dagon.”

Both of these authors are ones I enjoy and the otherworldly horror is such a cool concept in fiction, and seeing the different ways it can be brought to film is part of what makes the film media so amazing. How do you show the abstract and make your audience through fear? These films all do that to varying degrees and that is one thing I’ll be exploring as well as any philosophical ideas that may enter the works.

So without further ado, so being 2017’s Halloween Horror Week.

Re-Animator (1985): Doesn’t Quite Work, Though Good is There

Re-Animator Poster

    I like Jeffrey Combs, I’ve even found a that I enjoy camp bloody horror like “Hellraiser” or “The Thing” the thing is this film is unlike either of those in storytelling. There are certianly aspects of the film I liked, but the focus is all wrong. We follow the most uninteresting couple when there is the prime candidate to tell an interesting story right there…Herbert West.

     The film was directed by Stuart Gordon who also co-wrote the script along with William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli. Brian Yuzna produced the film and it is based off the story Herbert West-Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft.

     The story involves a medical student named Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) taking in Herbert West as a roommate. Things soon get more complicated as his fiance Megan (Barbara Crampton) is the daughter of the Dean of the College as Dan finds himself pulled into Herbert’s experiments in reanimation of the dead.

The Pros: The Premise – The premise is pretty cool. Any movie with a mad scientist immediately has potential to explore the depths of mortality and why a person would want to bring back the dead or escape death…sadly we don’t get any reasons behind why Herbert West does what he does, but the premise gives us the potential for more.

The Special Effects – The Special Effects are great! We get to see a re-animated cat, head and a few zombie bodies as well. This is really where the movie works and I wish we’d gotten more of it since the writing is really bad when things aren’t being brought back to life.

Herbert West – Jeffrey Combs can make anything good, even a poor script. We never get his motivation but his passion shows why even he could see the smallest of roles in “Star Trek” and make them interesting. His character is the reason to watch this and his acting owns this film.

The Ending – Dan the bland leads using re-animation to resurrect his dead fiance. That’s actually a pretty neat ending as the film establishes that being brought back warps your mind.

Cons: The Antagonists – Whether it’s the Dean or Dr. Hill these are men who only live to control and the reasons behind their insecurity and bullying is never explored in any way. They are crappy villains that bring down the story.

Megan – All she does is scream and she is only written into this film to be creeped on by all the male characters. She is nothing more than a prop that drives the protagonist (Dan) and antagonists’ (The Dean and Dr. Hill) actions.

The Structure of the Film – The structure begins with the past and Herbert West trying to bring back his mentor Gruber. It is so different from the rest of the film I am not sure why it was put in as West shows on multiple occasions he doesn’t care about people just what he can do with them after they are dead. From here we follow Dan’s story and it just goes down from there…so West’s motivations aren’t fully established and we have a weak lead…the hook fails causing the rest of the film to be weak in the process.

  This is a film that is alright and worth checking out if you are a fun of Jeffrey Combs and Lovecraft as I am. Sadly neither are given the chance to fully be in a masterpiece of his work as the film falls flat on a few occasions and the blandness of the leads and the antagonists only being one-dimension really brings the film down. For what it is worth though, I am curious if the other sequels are better.

Final Score: 6.5 / 10